|Today’s scripture readings:||Sermon audio:
When Christopher Columbus and his sailors arrived on what we now know as the Bahamas, the Arawak people who were the islands’ original inhabitants swarmed onto the beach, naked and amazed, and swam out to get a closer look at the strange, big boat. As the ship’s crew came ashore, carrying swords and speaking an unfamiliar language, the Arawaks ran to greet them, bringing them food, water, and gifts. Columbus actually wrote about this encounter himself. He said: “They willingly traded everything they owned…. They are so naïve and so free with their possessions that no one who has not witnessed them would believe it. When you ask for something they have, they never say no…. They would make fine servants.” Three years after arriving on the islands, that’s just what happened. A crew of Europeans went about rounding up a thousand or more Arawaks, who were shipped back to Spain, and those who survived the trip across the Atlantic were sold there to the highest bidder. Columbus later wrote, “Let us in the name of the Holy Trinity go on sending all the slaves that can be sold.”
By now most of us realize that the history of European colonization of the Americas isn’t as rosy as most of us were taught. From the time European explorers arrived on this continent and declared themselves the rightful tenants of someone else’s land, that story has been marked by violence, bloodshed, and subjugation. Looking back, it’s almost like the coarseness and brutality that so many of us lament in modern American culture has been baked into our country’s DNA from the very beginning. I wonder if we all haven’t inherited the notion that some people are less human than others. Maybe we shouldn’t be surprised when we see people being so cruel to one another on social media, in our kids’ classrooms, or in the halls of Congress, or be so shocked that mass shootings have become such a regular occurrence in this country. Those of us whose ancestors made themselves this land’s tenants need to come to terms with the truth about the kind of tenants our people have been.
I think that’s what Jesus is trying to do when he tells the parable in today’s Gospel lesson. The parable is an allegory, where every word and image stands for something else. This story about a vineyard is actually a thinly veiled condemnation of the religious leaders’ failure to look after and provide for the people entrusted to their care. God planted a vineyard, which we are to understand is the promised land of Israel, and God put the chief priests, the scribes, and the Pharisees in charge—they are the tenants who manage the vineyard. But the religious establishment too often acted unjustly and sought their own interest over the common good. Throughout Israel’s history, prophets came along, denouncing hypocrisy and demanding justice, but each time those prophets were silenced by the authorities. Now Jesus, the Son of God, stands among them—he’s the ultimate prophet—calling for a new way of living and being together, and even he will be silenced and put to death.
Jesus’ anger is directed at the tenants—at the religious authorities in his day who had turned away from God and repeatedly rejected calls to act with justice and compassion. Over and over again, prophets had come forward to complain against the religious leaders who they believed had gone astray. One of the more memorable prophets in the Bible is Amos, who stood up and said, “I hate, I despise your religious festivals, and take no delight in your solemn assemblies. You bring burnt offerings, but God will not accept them. Take away from me the noise of your songs. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” The prophet Micah was a little less harsh but brought the same message: “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”
Now another prophet has arrived in Jerusalem—Jesus. When he heals someone on the Sabbath day, he finds himself in hot water with the religious authorities. They accuse him of doing work on the Sabbath, which is a violation of the commandment to keep the Sabbath day holy. But Jesus says, “You’ve got your priorities all wrong. God’s commandments were given for the well-being of the people. Are you really saying I should wait until tomorrow to heal someone who needs help today?” Later, when Jesus arrives at the temple in Jerusalem, the holiest place in all Israel, where people come to worship God and offer sacrifices, he finds vendors hawking their goods and gouging the poor. Merchants had set up shop in the temple, persuading worshipers to spend all they money they had on animals to be sacrificed inside. It was unjust, and it was happening right there in the temple. How could the religious leadership have allowed this to happen? So when Jesus tells this parable today and accuses the religious authorities of wrongdoing, this is what he’s talking about. He’s angry that those in power are mistreating their poorest and most vulnerable neighbors, and making a mockery of their faith.
This parable causes us to pause and consider the ways we have done the same. Maybe this weekend, on the eve of Columbus Day—or what many have begun to call Indigenous Peoples Day—maybe today is an appropriate day for us to consider the ways we act unjustly by deciding that some people are less worthy, less human, or less valuable than ourselves. It’s not just the ways we have mistreated the native peoples who were tenants on this land long before we arrived. Our country maintained slavery for 246 years and then practiced segregation for another 100 years because we labeled black people as “others.” Other nations have found ways to reject whole groups of people, too. Germany had the Holocaust; the Soviet Union had gulags; South Africa had apartheid. There was ethnic cleansing in the Balkans and in central Africa. Still today, we so often refuse to accept the humanity of others who are different from ourselves. Just listen to the conversation our political leaders are having about refugees and newly-arrived immigrants in this country.
Given how quick we are to act unjustly and mistreat our neighbors, we probably deserve to have our vineyard taken away and given to others who will manage it better than we have ourselves. But I don’t think that’s how God works. The landowner in today’s parable seems reluctant to give up on the wicked tenants. He tries over and over again to get them to do what is right. He cares enough about them even to risk sending his own son as an ambassador into a situation with a history of violence. He keeps holding out hope that the tenants could have a change of heart and do the right thing. The landowner seems actually a little bit crazy. He sends a group of servants to collect his due, and they are murdered. Rather than pressing charges or hiring hitmen to execute justice, he foolishly sends more servants. And the same thing happens again. What did he expect? So why, after all that, would he send his own son, expecting a different result? It’s crazy.
I think that’s exactly the point. It might seem crazy, but God hasn’t given up on us yet. God is still holding out hope that one of these days we’re going to get it right. This is the God we worship—a God who is crazy enough to give us second and third chances, who doesn’t give up on us when we prove ourselves to be unfaithful, but takes risks to be in relationship with us. That’s good news for us. It means we can try again today and tomorrow and the day after that; when we hurt others or mistreat our neighbors, when we fail to live up to our values and ideals, we can confess our wrongdoing, seek forgiveness, and change our ways, and we can try to do better. God gives us a chance to do better.
Thomas G. Long, Matthew, in the Westminster Bible Companion series, eds. Patrick D. Miller and David L. Bartlett (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1997).
Marvin A. McMickle, “Matthew 21:33-46: Homiletical Perspective,” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year A, Vol. 4, eds. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2011).
Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States (New York: HarperCollins, 2003).
The featured image for this post, “Christopher Columbus Monument – Barcelona, Spain” is copyright (c) 2012 David Berkowitz and made available under an Attribution 2.0 Generic license.